Could the Oscars actually make the world a better place? Don't laugh—it's not impossible! Speaking to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson about which films tend to win awards, UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman suggested that, "if there were no Oscars to drive box office towards them, there would be far fewer movies about historical protagonists overcoming oppression."
Anyone who thinks that entertainment can and should give people insight into real-world struggles might be glad to hear that. But of course there's the uncomfortable flipside to Rossman’s statement: that folks in Hollywood make “serious” movies not really because they think those movies need to be made, but because they want an Oscar.
Watching the 2014 ceremony, at times it was easy to be suspicious. The theme of the night was "heroes," and a montage towards the beginning stitched together moments from iconic films about, yes, "historical protagonists overcoming oppression" from Jackie Robinson to Erin Brockovich to Solomon Northup, the protagonist of this year's Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave. Plenty of great movies were featured in the segment, but the individual struggles portrayed felt entirely incidental, their differences smoothed out to fit into a generic story about beating the odds. The purpose was promotional: to show how great Hollywood was for paying attention to real people at all.
Host Ellen DeGeneres's ongoing shtick went even further: acting as though the celebrities in the room were Real People too. But in devoting long lengths of time to movie stars taking selfies and eating pizza, the stars’ un-realness just became all the more noticeable. When we're laughing at Brad Pitt wolfing down a slice, we're laughing at the perceived weirdness of the situation—superhuman actor doing a regular-human thing. When we're retweeting that group selfie to become the most-shared Twitter image ever, it's not because the people in the picture are just like us—it’s because the famous lady on TV told us to.
But there were also moments where it seemed like the relationship between Hollywood and the wider world could consist of something more than exploitation and snickering. For example, it was nice to see the actual Philomena and Captain Phillips in the audience. Jared Leto made up for his past awards-show omissions by mentioning people with AIDS while accepting his supporting-actor prize for Dallas Buyers’ Club. When the Best Feature Documentary statue went to 20 Feet From Stardom, which is about the plight of undercredited backup singers on classic songs, the film’s producers did what too few others had done for their subject Darlene Love: Let her take the spotlight.
Yet the most powerful, and memorable, moment came when 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong'o took the stage to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress. Some skeptics say her film’s adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir servitude is pure awards bait—a catalogue of depravity designed to ensure white guilt. Early in the night, DeGeneres summed up that attitude as she laid out two possibilities for Best Picture: Either 12 Years wins, or "you're all racist."
But Nyong’o’s speech wasn't about Hollywood, or white guilt, or anything other than the heartbreaking true story her film portrayed. "It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said after quickly thanking the academy. “And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own."
Really look at that wording: It doesn't escape her for one second that her current joy directly stems from someone else's pain. She does make the standard industry thank-yous to cast, crew, and family members, but she chooses to preface all of that with a lengthy dedication to the person whose story she told on screen. Later in the speech, she said she could feel the presence of the dead. Lots of Oscar winners try to project humility, but usually that professed humility is in relation to others in the film industry—not in relation to all of American history.
Director Steve McQueen seemed similarly sincere and mindful accepting the Best Picture prize. He said the film really was Northup's story, and dedicated the win to the tens of millions of people who have been and who still are enslaved. The night had been long and full of snarkable, show-biz self aggrandizement, but in the final seconds we were asked to think about something else. "Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live," McQueen said, and in that moment the gap between the Dolby theater and the rest of humanity felt a little smaller.